When there is almost no one to say goodbye

Wed, Dec 12, 2012, 00:00

How does a funeral work if there are few people - or none - to mourn a deceased person?

In March this year, Wexford town awoke to sad news. The body of a 62-year-old man, Alan Moore, had been discovered in a house in a busy part of the town.

The Garda­ found no suspicious marks on Moore’s body, but he had lain there for several weeks, and was discovered only because a passer-by noticed that the occupant of the house had Christmas decorations up, months after the holiday season.

It was discovered that Moore was originally from Salford in the UK and had “kept himself to himself” while living in Wexford.

Gardaí initially struggled to trace Moore’s relatives, but two brothers and a small number of other people – about a dozen, not all of whom knew him – attended his funeral a few weeks later. Among those who helped transfer his coffin to the hearse were two journalists covering the event.

Cases like Alan Moore’s are rare but the number of people living alone, and the growth of emigration, means relatives are not always present when a funeral takes place.

Usually when organising funeral services, funeral directors follow instructions handed to them by family or set out in a will. But what can they do if the deceased’s family or friends cannot be traced and no mourners are expected?

Gus Nichols has been the managing director of one of Dublin’s oldest funeral firms, JC Nichols, for 16 years, and he has organised funerals where no guests have been present.

The 2011 Census revealed that a quarter of people over the age of 65 and almost half of those over the age of 85 are living alone, and Nichols has noted a slight increase in the number of pre-arranged funerals and services with no mourners.

“It’s unusual that you can’t trace relatives but sometimes relatives can be found who want nothing to do with the person. Then you have a little bit of an issue. But ultimately the body won’t stay there for months and months,” he says.

If the deceased has not left a will or family members are unable or unwilling to help plan the arrangements, funeral directors have to take things into their own hands. Particularly in urban areas, where neighbours tend to be people who live next door rather than close acquaintances, it can be almost impossible to glean information about the deceased’s preferences.

In that case, elements such as flowers and music have to be kept to a minimum and the service tends to be very simple, says Nichols, who has also served as president of the International Federation of Funeral Operatives.

The emotion and grief usually provided by loved-ones is also absent at these types of funerals, but Nichols believes that funeral directors should not get drawn into taking on the family’s role.

“A good funeral director would make suggestions that will make sense. There’s no point having a cathedral booked or horses and carriages. However, you have to learn to be empathetic but also disassociate yourself from the emotion.

“We are acting for the family but we are not the family. So a funeral where there is nobody wouldn’t have any more of an emotional effect on the people involved in arranging it.

“When you have funerals where there are only a handful of people or none at all, you will often hear people make the comment ‘that is very sad’.

“And while it is sad from our point of view, because they have no friends or no one kept in contact with them, there are people in this life who disassociate themselves from the rest of society and that is their choice,” says Nichols.

“Of course there are also plenty of older single widows and widowers or people whose families have emigrated. We would meet a lot of people in those circumstances.”

There are small things that funeral directors can do to add some warmth to the service, Nichols says. For instance, the firm’s staff members sometimes attend funerals where mourners are not present, as a small token of respect.

Countryside etiquette

The situation is different outside urban centres. Funeral director Luke Early has been working in the rural town of Mohill, Co Leitrim for 35 years and has organised similar sorts of funerals.

Early tends to keep the service as simple as possible, and the close nature of rural communities means he can call upon locals to attend a funeral even when the departed is not known to them.

“It is something I have come across. There was one case where a person’s brother was abroad and I had to deal with all the arrangements,” says Early.

“It’s not something that happens very often out in the country. It would be very rare that there wouldn’t be somebody there for the person. But you’d have an idea of who the person’s neighbours would be and Mohill is a tight-knit area – everybody knows each other around here.

“You would be able to call on people in that situation. People are good like that and would help each other out.”

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